What began as a proposal for tax reform to help ease the economic impact of the pandemic and balance government finances ended with people taking to the streets to express their dissatisfaction.
Protests in Colombia are now in their third week, and homicide charges have been filed after a national police officer was caught on video shooting and killing a 17-year-old in the city of Cali on the first day of the demonstrations.
The Colombian Attorney General’s Office issued a statement last week charging Luis ngel Piedrahita Hernández, a police officer, with aggravated homicide in connection with the death of Marcelo Agredo Inchima.
Officer Piedrahita Hernández insists on his innocence, and the case will be heard in a criminal court.
The charges were announced on the same day that General Jorge Luis Vargas, the new head of Colombia’s National Police, defended the force’s credibility — which has been heavily criticized for its harsh response to the protests — while admitting that police would be the first to admit their flaws.
“Any act that a police officer commits against the law is forcefully rejected,” General Vargas said, speaking to Spanish newspaper El País last week. “Whoever has individual responsibility, we hope that the full weight of the law falls on him. And we will be the first to ask for forgiveness when it is determined,” he added.
As reports of human rights violations rise and international humanitarian organizations, including the United Nations, express concerns, the institution that the general oversees has found itself in the midst of a credibility crisis. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) formally requested access to the country on Saturday in order to investigate the allegations of abuse.
According to Colombia’s Ombudsman Office, at least 42 people have died as a result of the protests. According to human rights organizations, the death toll could be much higher. At least 2,387 cases of police violence have been reported, according to Temblores, a human rights organization.
On a day when social media videos of brutal police repression would enrage an already enraged nation, Marcelo Agredo Inchima was one of the first casualties of the protests.
Agredo, who is seventeen years old, and his brother attended the first day of protests in Cali, a city in southwest Colombia that would soon become the epicenter of the movement, on April 28. They had no idea it would be the last time they saw him alive.
Agredo is seen kicking a police officer on a motorcycle in dramatic social media footage shot from a balcony in the Mariano Ramos neighborhood. As people flee in terror, shots can be heard. Agredo tries to flee on foot, but a police officer grabs his gun and shoots him, killing him.
Agredo is seen running and then falling to the ground in a second social media video shot from a different angle. A third image depicts his body lying in a pool of blood on the pavement, with people frantically attempting to move him. “They killed him!” screams a woman, her voice filled with terror.
She sobs near Agredo’s still body, “No, he’s already dead.”
The young man’s father spoke with Temblores on camera the next day and confirmed his son’s death.
“My kid died there as a result of a shot that a police officer gave him. My son attacked a policeman with a kick,” Armando Agredo Bustamante said, arguing the kick wasn’t a reason to take his son’s life when his son was unarmed and “defenseless.”
For many Colombians, what began as protests against a now-repealed tax reform that would have hit many already-struggling families has evolved into a call to end the use of excessive police force against protesters, which they claim has plagued the country for decades.
“The way that they decided to take these things is to bring the police and the military forces against their own people. That is why we are all gathered here “The brightly colored yellow, blue, and red Colombian flag wrapped around his neck like a cape, Juan Pablo Randazzo, 21, told CNN during a peaceful protest in the capital of Bogotá.
“We are not prepared to hear the next day that one of our friends, that one of our family, that one of our brothers is getting killed,” the university student added with emotion in his voice.
Colombian President Iván Duque announced 65 investigations into police abuse in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Chief International Anchor Christiane Amanpour last week, adding that the country has “strict protocols” on the use of force.
Duque said his government had “always trusted and defended the fundamental right in our institution for specific protests.”
Nonetheless, government officials claim that some of the violence is being perpetrated by leftist militants and illegal armed groups.
Colombia’s Defense Ministry announced last week that security forces had apprehended a leader of a local cell of the country’s largest leftist guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). The Ministry accused him of trying to blend in with the Cali protests by planning to detonate a hand grenade and blame security forces, but provided no evidence.
The government’s decision to withdraw the tax reform proposal, which it claimed was necessary to mitigate the pandemic’s effects, came too late to appease protesters who had been subjected to months of economic pressure, exacerbated by police brutality, all of which has deepened the sense of inequality felt by many Colombians.
Protesters have set fire to public buses, police stations, stores, and roads across the country, further disrupting the economy and the flow of goods.
“The Colombian Constitution does not establish the right to block, for violence, or vandalism,” Interior Minister Daniel Palacios said on Twitter. “The blockades generate poverty, don’t build a country and end the economy,” he added.
Negotiations between the Colombian government, indigenous groups, and the National Strike Committee are currently underway, but have so far failed. Even President Duque’s announcement last week that lower-income students will have their tuition waived in the second semester of 2021 failed to quell the protests.
Meanwhile, Colombians are becoming increasingly impoverished, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic and nationwide curfews. The poverty rate increased from 36 percent in 2019 to 42.5 percent in 2020, according to the country’s National Statistics Department (DANE).
According to a DANE study, the number of Colombian families eating fewer than three meals per day has tripled since the outbreak.
Colombia’s economic situation, according to sociology and history professor Jose Alejandro Cifuentes, is dire and intertwined with the country’s history of civil war and inequality.
“We are in a very serious situation in the face of access to higher education, employment, and we are facing a situation of high informal employment that is the only space left for these youths,” Cifuentes said in regard to the many young Colombians taking to the streets to voice their frustrations and concerns.
However, the pandemic has affected not only future generations. Marlon Rincon Peralta, 46, a father of five whom we met as he waved down the few visitors who drove past his mostly empty tables, has been affected.
Rincon Peralta was forced to make the transition from business owner to waiter at a restaurant in Zipaquirá, a once-bustling colonial tourist town north of the capital.
“Never, never have I seen this situation,” Rincon Peralta told CNN, crying as he described how the pandemic only served to make the rich richer and the poor poorer as a result of the country’s long history of inequality.
Financially, he is at his worst.
“I tell my wife, my kids, if we continue like this, no, no… what are we going to do?” he said with tears in his eyes.
“The pandemic has a cure,” he said but the economy and inequality doesn’t. “If we don’t do something, we will never have a cure.”